Swedish director Bjorn Runge’s The Wife is set in 1992, a time when people still used corded landlines and smoked cigarettes. When Glenn Close, as the title character, accepts a cigarette from an infatuated younger man, she smokes it romantically, like a classic movie star, which of course she is.
Close’s character, Joan Castleman, is not a smoker, but she’s sitting in a hip café in Stockholm after a couple days of hovering silently in the shadow of her spouse, the year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner, as he receives wave after wave of adulation. The furnisher of the cigarette, an obsequious biographer fishing for information for a book about her husband, has just floated an implication that would throw her personal and professional life into turmoil. She responds with the movie’s best line. “Please don’t paint me as a victim,” she says, between drags, awakening heretofore-dormant poise and self-possession. “I’m much more interesting than that.”
We’re soon to find out just how interesting she is. At its best, The Wife, adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name, is a feminist response to that initially well-meaning but increasingly condescending idiom that “behind every great man is a great woman.”
Her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) is a Philip Roth-like literary lion, praised for his deft understanding of Jewish-American life and the complexities of the human experience; in the words of a sycophantic friend, he is “the greatest living author of the 20th century.”
He’s also a Class-A prick, given to ravenous indulgences of the appetite and libido. Arriving at their posh hotel suite for the Nobel ceremony, he scoffs at gifts from colleagues he deems insufficiently expensive — “he always sends the same cheap s—” — and is ungrateful toward everyone, it seems, except Joan. To her, he credits every iota of his success. “Without this woman, I am nothing,” he tells a roomful of friends and family upon the announcement of his Nobel, which only triggers a downcast gaze from Joan. In Stockholm, she’s equally distant and mercurial, hardly the supportive wife enjoying her husband’s crowning achievement. What gives?
The rationale for Joan’s behavior reveals itself slowly and elliptically, and it begins in 1958, in a flashback, when Joan, then an eager college student, meets Joe, her unhappily married literature professor. Runge revisits the couple’s past twice more, deftly encapsulating the roadblocks facing female authors. Working as an administrative assistant at a publishing house, she watches as roomfuls of male executives dismiss the prose of “lady writers” as “soft.”
Instead of acting as a role model, a published but overlooked female author informs the budding Joan to give up her dreams: “People can’t stomach bold work from a woman.” Has much changed? One thinks of the generations of female authors, even to this day, who choose initialed noms de plume over their full names, so that the patriarchal status quo remains none the wiser.
Between these flashbacks; the probing questions of Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater), the aforementioned biographer angling for a juicy exposé; and the actions of Joe and Joan in Stockholm; Runge and his screenwriter, Jane Anderson, leave us enough bread crumbs that the movie’s central surprise lands gently and expectantly, though its aftershocks reverberate with the vitriol of an Edward Albee play. The Wife can be so compelling at times — written and directed with such sharp psychological acuity — that its weaker moments bedevil what could have been a masterly drama in the late-Bergman (or late-Rossellini) mold.
There’s no excuse for the facile, self-congratulatory ironies rippling from flashback to present-day, in which the young, insecure Joe Castleman voices the same sentiments, using the same words, as Joe’s emerging writer son (Max Irons) deploys three decades later. For every crystalline moment of persuasive truth, the script takes a narrative shortcut, favoring the literal over the poetic, the convenient over the messy, none more so than its climactic cop-out.
But Close’s Joan is a complicated figure who owns none of the film’s false notes. From the way she laughs at inopportune times — not out of nervousness but out of paradoxical command — to the flashes of possibility that seem to pass discreetly over her countenance in the film’s most trying scenes, each of Close’s key choices raises a mediocre film up another notch. Long after the movie’s revelations have been unpacked and the credits have rolled, her mysteries continue to intrigue.
THE WIFE. Director: Bjorn Runge; Cast: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Annie Starke, Harry Lloyd; Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics; Rating: R; now showing at Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Movies of Lake Worth, Cinemark Boynton Beach, Movies of Delray, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, and more.